Making Home Accessible: Home Modification for Disability
Making modifications to your home can help you live independently as a person with a disability. How extensively you would have to renovate varies widely based on a homeowner's needs and a house's age and condition. You could install a taller toilet for a few hundred dollars or spend thousands of dollars on a walk-in shower or an elevator.
The good news is a rapidly aging population means more products are available to accommodate disabilities, and a growing number of contractors, mortgage brokers and real estate agents are familiar with what's needed. But renovating a house can be expensive, and funding bigger remodeling projects can be challenging for many.
MoneyGeek put together an overview of how much common renovations cost, tips on finding help to pay for remodeling projects, information about your available mortgage options and expert advice on home modification. Those who don't want to deal with renovations or find the task is beyond their economic means can still find help to live independently through other resources such as rental assistance in homes designed for people with disabilities.
How Much Does a Remodeling Project Cost?
The costs of common home remodeling projects are specific to the needs of each individual. A person who uses a wheelchair has different needs than someone who is visually impaired, and the cost of modifying their homes varies considerably. Think about homeownership programs for people with disabilities to help with renovation costs. Of course, the first and most expensive step is purchasing a home.
Here are some important renovation projects to consider if you or someone in your family has a disability.
In addition to the six common renovations above, Jamie Gold— a wellness consultant and author of “Wellness by Design” — believes people with disabilities would also install in their homes pull-outs and pull-downs to cabinets, "adding grab bars to bathing and toilet areas, changing tubs to showers with a bench or seat and creating a barrier-free entry and ‘visitable’ floor plan."
Susan Luxenberg — an aging-in-place specialist, author of Fearless Remodeling and founder and president of HomeSmart LLC — said a lot of accessories in the kitchen could be installed easily and won't necessarily require major construction, such as pop-up shelves, roll-out shelves and lazy Susan cabinets.
Luxenberg said, "People also swap their old appliances for appliances that are friendlier, such as refrigerators that have drawer freezers, or ranges that have the controls on the front of the appliance, so you don't have to reach across the burners. Anything where someone isn't reaching, bending or stretching is really a good investment.”
For bathroom projects, she also mentioned you might be able to find comfort-height toilets for under $200. Since the plumbing remains the same, you can modify a small 5’x8’ bathroom for around $15,000. Depending on what you need to make your home more accessible, bathroom projects can add up, and you could spend $25,000 with high-quality finishes.
Funding Home Repairs for Independent Living
Home repairs can be costly. The first thing to do is source a reputable contractor through the Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau and get at least three quotes by calling various contractor companies. That way, you’ll have a starting point to build a budget around what repairs are necessary, given your needs and constraints due to the layout of your home. Then, start to apply for various grants and nonprofit organizations for funding help.
The IRS also offers tax deductions for capital expenses when done for medical care: “Certain improvements made to accommodate a home to your disabled condition or that of your spouse or your dependents who live with you, don't usually increase the value of the home and the cost can be included in full as medical expenses.”
IRS Deductions for Home Improvements Related to Disabilities
The Internal Revenue Service offers a tax break for people with disabilities for medical expenses, which can include the costs of living with a disability. You can deduct only the amount of medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.
Among the items the IRS allows you to write off are artificial limbs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, guide dogs, phone equipment for people with hearing impairments, long-term care insurance premiums and Braille books (but only the part of the cost that exceeds the regular printed version).
Taking Out Loans
You can take out a loan to finance a home modification. Conventional loans are the most common type of mortgage, with 69% of home buyers purchasing with a conventional loan. About 17% of buyers buy homes using a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan that people with lower credit scores can qualify for.
However, FHA loans have different requirements, so compare rates between an FHA and conventional loan to decide which will save you money on interest. Another option is a U.S. Department of Agriculture home loan (USDA) that folks with low or moderate incomes can qualify for if they live in rural areas.
4 Ways to Get a Mortgage for Improvement
In recent years, tight lending standards haven't been kind to borrowers with disabilities, who often need a bit of flexibility from lenders. Still, some programs can help borrowers with disabilities land mortgages or take out smaller loans:
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program offers loans of up to $20,000 and grants of up to $7,500 to low-income homeowners in rural areas who need to renovate. To qualify, you must have a family income below 50% of your area's median income. The interest rate is capped at 1%. Grants are available only to homeowners who are 62 or older. Younger borrowers are eligible only for loans.
To apply, contact your state office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A state-by-state list is available on the USDA's website. You can also find lenders in your area who specialize in USDA loans.
Digital Federal Credit Union of Massachusetts
The Digital Federal Credit Union of Massachusetts makes loans of up to $2,500 for products and modifications for people with disabilities. Approved uses for the loans include wheelchairs, specialized beds, rehabilitative equipment, elevators and ramps. Rates range from 7.1% for three-year loans to 8.85% for six years.
Reverse mortgages let homeowners who are 62 or older use the equity in their homes. Nearly three-quarters of Americans in this age group own their homes, giving them a source of assets to help with finances, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Be careful, though — fees related to reverse mortgages are extremely high compared to traditional mortgages and are rolled into the loan. Further, the loan becomes due if you are out of the house for a year or longer.
Your equity in the home also will likely decrease, which would leave less in your estate for heirs. You can estimate how equity you have by using a reverse mortgage calculator. Additionally, make sure you have cash for insurance and property taxes because you could face foreclosure if you can't cover housing costs. But if you plan to live in your house for a long time, a reverse mortgage may make sense for you. Borrowing gradually against your home equity can help pay for renovations.
You may want to learn more about reverse mortgages proceeds. To get started, contact a HUD-approved mortgage counselor or a reverse mortgage lender.
Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)
Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) offer renovation loans to homeowners and buyers. They are not specifically designed for borrowers with disabilities but can be used for necessary adaptations. Fannie Mae's HomeStyle program is available for buyers who want to get money to buy and renovate a home in one loan or to those who want to refinance their home loans and get cash for renovations. The FHA's 203(k) renovation loan is similar to Fannie's but has more flexible qualification requirements.
To qualify, you'll need to gather necessary documents and information on your assets, credit and debt to apply for an FHA loan.
Refinancing your home when interest rates are low is an excellent way to pull equity out of your home so you can take on big projects like a home modification. The first thing to do is monitor the interest rates, which you can do with MoneyGeek's real-time mortgage interest rate tracker. If you decide to take on a cash-out refinance, you can calculate your new payment with this refinance calculator. Then, contact a few different lenders to see who can offer you the best rate, secure a preliminary mortgage approval and then choose your lender.
Getting Help From Nonprofit Organizations
Assistance from nonprofits such as Rebuilding Together, a nationwide organization whose volunteers help homeowners upgrade their residences, can be a source to fund home repairs. Rebuilding Together works with dozens of affiliated organizations nationwide to complete some 10,000 projects a year.
Since Rebuilding Together helps homeowners with a low income, you typically would need to fall under income guidelines that vary depending on where you live. For example, in Berkeley, California, Rebuilding Together helps applicants who are 62 and older or have a certified disability and whose income is no more than $71,600 per year in a four-member household. In West Palm Beach, Florida, annual household income can't exceed $40,950 for a family of four.
Other sources of information and aid include:
- The National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification: Headquartered at the University of Southern California, the center aims to encourage aging in place and promote home modifications. The National Resource Center provides training and education, technical help and an information clearinghouse.
- Local Independent Living Center Affiliates: This is a directory of independent living centers, compiled by the Independent Living Research Utilization Program, a nonprofit organization. The directory lists centers that train people with disabilities to live independently and where 51% of both the staff and the board of directors have disabilities.
- Local Easter Seals chapters: Easter Seals and real estate brokerage Century 21 launched the Easy Access for Easier Living Program, which includes educational brochures, resources and tips for making a home accessible.
Grants and Other Financial Assistance Programs
Grants are available for home modifications through various programs. Those who suffer from neurological disorders can apply for a Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation grant ($10,000 max). The nonprofit organization Elderly or Disabled Living offers financial assistance to help people live a better life. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides Single Family Housing Repair Loans & Grants (Section 504 Home Repair program), which provides grants and loans to homeowners who have a low income to repair, improve or modernize their homes, and offers grants to the elderly to remove health and safety hazards.
Frequently Asked Questions About Home Modifications
Making a home accessible can spark questions about available resources for home modifications, government benefits, making sure you're being compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), loans and credit. You’ll find the answers to frequently asked questions about home modification below.
Funding for Assistive Technology
Assistive technology describes devices or software that can help people with learning disabilities or physical frailties. Wheelchairs, walkers and prosthetic limbs are common examples of assistive technology, but product offerings have multiplied in recent years to include several computer-related technologies, including screen readers and talking calculators.
If a doctor prescribes a piece of assistive technology, your health insurance might cover part or all of the cost. Schools provide some assistive technology necessary for students to learn, and employers might pay for devices needed by their employees. Some nonprofit organizations, such as California Assistive Technology Reuse Coalition and Ability Tools, have created marketplaces for people with disabilities to buy or borrow used and free devices. Others give equipment to people who are disabled for free. For instance, ComputerBanc provides free computers to Illinois residents with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Assistive Technology Center helps people learn about devices and allows them to borrow devices for a trial period. The Assistive Technology Industry Association has compiled a comprehensive list of private and public funding sources for assistive technology.
Independent Living Help for Individuals With Disabilities
You may qualify for more specific benefits, such as grants and vouchers, to help with modifications. Or you might consider independent living as a renter rather than remodeling your home. There are additional considerations for people with disabilities who are veterans, children or those living in assisted living facilities.
Disability housing grants may be available to veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, vets may qualify for a Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant to buy, build or change their permanent home if they meet both of the following requirements: They must own the home (or will own the home in the future) and have a qualifying service-connected disability.
Qualifying service-connected disabilities include:
- The loss or loss of use of more than one limb.
- The loss or loss of use of a lower leg along with the residuals (lasting effects) of an organic (natural) disease or injury.
- Blindness in both eyes (having only light perception) along with the loss or loss of use of a leg.
- Certain severe burns.
- The loss or loss of use of one lower extremity (foot or leg) after September 11, 2001, which makes it so you can’t balance or walk without the help of braces, crutches, canes or a wheelchair.
Additionally, it’s important to note that only 30 veterans and service members each fiscal year can qualify for a grant based on the loss of one extremity. If you qualify for but don’t receive a grant in the current fiscal year because the cap has already been reached, you may be able to use this benefit in future years. If you qualify for a SAH grant, you can get up to $90,364 for the 2020 fiscal year, the current total maximum amount allowed for SAH grants. Don’t forget to keep track of all this information to file your veteran taxes.
According to Disabled World’s 2017 study “U.S. Disability Statistics by State, County, City and Age,” around 10% of people with disabilities in the United States are children aged 17 or younger. There are several resources available for parents of children living with disabilities, such as eParent.com, Through the Looking Glass, Support for Families of Children with Disabilities and the Disabled Parenting Project.
Funds for home modifications are available through Medicaid grants available in certain states. Nonprofit organizations such as Rebuilding Together and Christmas in Action conduct home repairs and home modifications for people with disabilities or special needs.
Additionally, parents of children who have disabilities can deduct capital expenses for medical care for dependents who live with them.
With poverty levels high for Americans who are disabled, many find homeownership out of reach, so they remain renters.
Renters with a disability are protected by the Federal Housing Act, which requires landlords to make reasonable modifications for tenants with disabilities. The FHA defines this as an upgrade that would provide basic conveniences for a tenant with a disability. For instance, the law could require a landlord to install a ramp, lower the entry threshold, install grab bars in the bathroom or accommodate an assistance animal, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But landlords can refuse accommodations that require "undue financial and administrative burden."
The U.S. public housing system aims to help people with disabilities find shelter, and HUD offers certain developments vouchers for renters with disabilities. The vouchers let a non-elderly person with a disability receive housing assistance in communities normally reserved for elderly families. To apply, contact your local public housing authority.
Some states also offer rent assistance. Massachusetts, for instance, offers an Alternative Housing Voucher Program for people with disabilities. This state program is for non-elderly people. Tenants pay 25% or 30% of their income to the landlord, and the local housing authority pays the rest. People with disabilities can apply at a local housing agency.
It’s equally as important to consider insuring your belongings as a renter. Many assume their landlord’s policy will cover tenant losses due to fire, vandalism, theft or other events outside of their control. The reality is, most landlords only insure losses to the property itself. Plus, your possessions are likely more valuable than you may think, and renters insurance is affordable, averaging about $16 per month.
Older Americans should consider making home modifications before they become a necessity, according to Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) Elizabeth Kennedy, the founder of the Age Fearless Academy.
“I encourage everyone, no matter their age or stage of life, to make any home renovation decisions that will make their home ‘future-proof’ with features that are prepared for or can more easily convert into their needs for the future,” Kennedy said.
Organizations like the National Council on Aging and Fall Prevention Center of Excellence (FPCE) at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology are valuable resources. The FPCE promotes aging in place and independent living for persons of all ages and abilities and is working on a HomeMods Project.
Assisted Living Facilities
As the U.S. population ages, assisted living facilities have boomed in popularity. At these group homes, residents typically live in a private apartment or room. The facilities' services include meals, group activities and transportation, and some offer special programs for specific disabilities such as Alzheimer's disease. Assisted living facilities also have multiplied for young adults with disabilities. They're an option if you'd rather not renovate your home or if a young person craves the independence that comes with moving out of a family's home.
Assisted living can be expensive, but insurance may cover some of the costs. You'll want to choose and pay for the right assisted living facility for you or your loved ones. Among the obvious considerations are the cleanliness of the facility and the professionalism of the staff. To get a feel for the facility, visit unannounced.
You don't necessarily have to find a facility close to your family. In some cases, people with mental illness respond better if they're far from home because they are freer to find themselves and develop new relationships, opening the door to growth and recovery.
If your home doesn’t allow for the modifications necessary to accommodate a wheelchair or other mobility device, assisted living care might be necessary — but it’s expensive. According to USA Today, the monthly median rate for assisted living in the U.S. in 2018 was $3,942. Contact your private insurance company or Medicare to compare the costs between independent living and assisted living facilities, which tend to be pricier.
Word of Advice on Home Modifications
MoneyGeek spoke to three experts in the area of home modifications to get their insight on some of the most important questions homeowners face when modifying their homes for disabilities.
- What's the biggest challenge homeowners face when renovating their properties?
- What are the latest trends in retrofitting houses?
- How much can a homeowner expect to spend on renovations?
- What resources are available for people retrofitting their homes?
- Are there any tips you have for homeowners or things people tend to forget about?
Founder & President of HomeSmart LLC
Wellness Design Consultant and Author
Founder of Age Fearless Academy, Home Health Physical Therapist & Certified Aging in Place Specialist
Chief Community Officer, JUNIPERunltd
Home Accessible Resources
There are many resources to help people who have physical or cognitive disabilities. Read on for a list of additional resources that will help you in your efforts to modify your home.
- The ALS Association's "Products to Aid in Daily Living": The ALS Association provides a list of resources to help people with disabilities in their daily lives. You can find information on aids in daily living, augmentative communication devices, ramps and lift systems, travel resources and wheelchairs and mobility.
- The Blind Guide's "How to Set Up a Productive Home Office if You Are Blind or Have Low Vision": The Blind Guide website has a blog discussing ways to set up a productive home office for individuals who are blind or have low vision since many people are working from home.
- Home Modification Information Network: You can find a state-by-state list of resources for home modifications through the Home Modification Information Network.
- Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) Directory of Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and Associations: This website lists state-by-state resources to provide independent living services.
- VisionAware: Using VisionAware's evaluation questionnaire, you can determine what areas of your home you may need to make safer. The evaluation includes questions regarding your home's smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, lighting and potential glare and potential tripping hazards.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Disability Housing Grants for Veterans: Veterans can apply for and check the status of grant applications through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
- The Alzheimer's Association's "Home Safety Tips": These home safety tips provide insightful information, such as keeping walkways well-lit and placing medications in a locked drawer or cabinet, on how to best care for a person with dementia.
- Autism Speaks Resource Guide: Find out about all of the resources located in your state in this comprehensive list.
- Growing Minds Autism Programs's "Creating an Optimum Home Environment for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders": This article provides information on several stimuli that may affect children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the home, and it gives suggestions on how to help create a better home environment.
- National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services (NASDDDS): NASDDDS's housing resource library has information on HUD Section 811 housing program, rural housing, Medicaid reimbursements for certain housing-related activities and more.
About the Author
- AARP. "Remodeling a Home to Be a Lifelong Home." Accessed October 12, 2020.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Snapshot of reverse mortgage complaints December 2011 – 2014." Accessed November 7, 2019.
- Home Advisor. "Disability Accommodation Cost Guides." Accessed October 12, 2020.
- NOLO. "Medicaid Home and Community-Based Waiver Services (HCBS)." Accessed October 12, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Justice ADA Standards. "Chapter 2: Scoping Requirements." Accessed October 12, 2020.
- U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service. "2019 Publication 502: Medical and Dental Expenses." Accessed October 12, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "Disability housing grants for Veterans." Accessed October 13, 2020.